Thomas McKenzie
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A Time of Shadows

Tonight is the Wednesday night of Holy Week. In the Anglican world, this often means it is time for Tenebrae (a Latin word meaning "shadows" or "darkness").

Tenebrae is a traditional service that comes from the Benedictine monasteries of Europe. It is a time of experiencing the last week in Christ's life through psalms, lessons, prayers, and gathering darkness. The centerpiece of the service is a gathering of fifteen candles which are snuffed out, one by one, as the service goes on. This increases the physical darkness, while also symbolizing Jesus' life ebbing away.

A few years ago as I was sitting in our church's traditional Tenebrae, I was impressed by the beauty of it, but also felt myself stifled by the droning boredom. On one hand, boredom is not something I think the Church should avoid. Sometimes it is a necessary corrective to the frenetic activity of the modern world. At the same time, it just seemed like something was really off.

Two years ago, I presented an utterly different kind of Tenebrae service. It has the same basic structure of the traditional one. It still has a pattern of psalms and teachings, arranged in the normal way. We still douse candles in the same order, while bringing one back at the end to symbolize the Resurrection. However, this Tenebrae is based in a multi-media demonstration which includes music, sound, recorded preaching out-takes, images, video, and still photography.

The first year I led this service, people were totally surprised and I got a heap of positive feedback. Last year, the service was very well attended and, once again, the feedback was great. This year, the pattern is the same but I have brought in many new voices, images, etc.

Here is what I love about this service: unlike most everything else we do, it is non-narrative and basically non-verbal. It is an intuitive journey into the storm of hope and rejection that is Holy Week. Most everyone will find something offensive in it, most everyone will find something moving in it. I can imagine people from a wide variety of backgrounds having a positive experience in this service.

Here is what I don't love about this service: unlike most everything else we do, it is non-narrative and basically non-verbal. It invites a sort of viewer-response experience that may not be helpful. It assumes a lot. It leaves so much room for interpretation that people may not hear the message I am trying to convey (in that way, it is more a work of art than a liturgy of the Church).

Most of all, I don't like that it requires an enormous video screen. I hate video screens in churches. There, I said it. I feel that the screen invites worship to be a media event rather than a community sacrifice. This Tenebrae is totally dependent on that screen.

So, tonight we are having our third annual non-traditional Tenebrae. I expect everyone who comes will get something out of it. I hope that people will leave their little ones in the childcare area, because some of it is too intense for kids. I myself will probably sit there and shed some tears. And I will pray that I don't sit there the whole time and judge what I'm doing. I would like to enter in to this service and not over-analyze.




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